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Ask the Experts: Game Testing Without Prior Experience

Ask the Experts: Game Testing Without Prior Experience

February 24, 2009 | By Jill Duffy




[The latest "Ask the Experts" advice column from sister site GameCareerGuide.com looks into QA jobs in the game development industry, investigating how much experience one really needs to become a game tester.]

Dear Experts,

This question is a follow-up to the last column, "Ask the Experts: Game Development Internships."

Here is the statement that spawned my question (see the last paragraph):

'Finally, as I was flipping through some of these job sites, I was surprised at the number of open QA jobs I saw. I recommend that college students apply for part-time QA gigs, too, just in case you can't find an internship. The experience of working in QA is just as good.'

My question is this: I do not have QA experience on a game title, and most companies want this! How does one go about getting the job if you have not had the chance to get the experience?

I mean, any dummy can type, and most QA applicants are freak gamers, like me -- 15 years for my gaming experience. Does that not count for anything, or my freakish attention to detail? So no, I do not have any title experience, but I have noticed various bugs during my gaming career!

Sincerely,
J.U., game player


Dear J.U.,

I do have some answers to your question, but first, let me give a quick synopsis of what a QA tester is and what she or he does.

What is a QA Game Tester?

QA stands for quality assurance. For the most part, a QA tester is the same thing as a game tester or a bug tester. These are people who test video games to try and find bugs, or technical imperfections, in the software before it is released to the consumer market.

Most avid game players will testify that there are bugs in almost all software sold on the market anyway, which is true, but QA testers help to track it down, and then itís up to the game developers to decide how much time they have to fix the bugs and which ones take priority.

Thatís the short version of what a QA video game tester is. Thereís a bit more to it than that. There are different kinds of testers, and different stages during the development process when different kinds of testing happen. But for the purpose of this article, letís talk generally about QA testers.

Getting a Job without Experience

The way you phrased your letter, J.U., makes it seem like you think this is a typical case of job hunting catch-22: you can get experience without a job, and you canít get a job without experience.

However, itís not the case that all QA jobs require prior QA experience, so letís nip that in the bud first. Many employers will ask that you have prior or relevant experience, but for entry-level QA jobs, itís more ďcandidates with experience preferredĒ than a deal breaker. What I mean by that is itís okay to fit the experience you do have -- say, your 15 years of playing video games and paying attention to bugs when you do -- onto the job. (Iíll give a few more examples of what kinds of experiences do count in a moment.)

But there are also times when itís not okay to do that.

Itís not okay to say you have industry experience when you donít if the job is clearly not entry-level (well, you could try, but your resume and cover letter wonít get very far). If you see the words ďseniorĒ or ďlead,Ē take that as a tip-off that the job is not for inexperienced people. If you see words like ďtechnicalĒ or ďengineer,Ē you should also read for more clues as to whether entry-level people would be acceptable candidates, bearing in mind that a company could be using the term ďengineerĒ to weed out the truly inexperienced people.

Letís talk a little more about what other experiences do count.

Experiences Outside a Company

You donít have to have collected a paycheck from Microsoft or Nintendo or Rockstar to have experience as a QA tester. There are other experiences you can have that count toward you being qualified to be hired full-time or part-time as a QA video game tester.

Beta tester. If you are an active member of any game community, but particularly MMOs, youíve probably seen a call for open beta testers before. You usually donít have to meet any real requirements to participate in those. Log in, play, and write an email or two describing things that were broken or incorrect.

And while being an open beta tester isnít great experience on its own if you just do it once or twice, it can help you connect with the kinds of people who are always looking for volunteers to test their games. You could rack up loads of experience this way.

Very important to know: If someone who wants you to pay to be a tester, donít do it. Itís a scam.

Student project tester. One of the lesser stated advantages of going to a game development school or a university that has an active game development club is that you will have almost immediate experience testing other students video game projects. Youíll certainly play test or focus testing many games -- which is not the same as bug testing, but itís a start. Itís you, looking at and analyzing an unfinished product, and learning how to turn on one part of your brain while shutting out the other in order to give usable feedback. And thatís a really important skill for software testers to develop.

Further, if youíre in an environment where youíre surrounded by student projects, chances are you will do some bug testing at some point anyway.

Non-game testing. I suppose itís unlikely to be applicable to most people who are thinking of applying to QA jobs, especially those under the age of 20, but if you have any experience testing software or products that are not video games, that would be extremely relevant experience.

ĎI Mean, Any Dummy Can Typeí

J.U., I canít believe you said, ďI mean, any dummy can type.Ē Oh dear.

Having that attitude will not get you a job in the game industry.

Rather than assume that the jobs performed and skills needed are commonplace and monkeyís work, try to instead consider the real value that these people bring to the table.

Remember, there can easily be 75 people or more on a game development team, and every single one of them is currently holding a job in an extremely competitive field. They are not ďdummies who can type,Ē and neither are the QA people they rely on to help them finish their games. A lot of people can be involved in a video gameís creation, and to work together as a team, they all have to communicate.

Being able to write and being able to communicate clearly, succinctly, and well have nothing whatsoever to do with typing.

The most valuable QA testers are the ones with the strongest communication skills (and a lot of patience). Think for a moment about the last time you found a bug in a video game. How urgent do you think it would have been to fix? How many other things in the game did it affect?

Was there more than one instance of the bug, and if so, would you log each instance separately or record the need for a global change? Were you able to make the bug happen more than once? What variables did you try? Did the bug change when the variables changed? Please tell me your answers in 50 words or fewer Ė and make sure I donít have to come to you directly to ask for clarification because that will sap time from my workday.

Communicating and typing are not the same things. Had you said that to a hiring committee, they might have taken you for a serious dilettante. Be careful. Making flippant remarks that belittle the people whose job you would like to have will not ingratiate you to them.

If, on the other hand, you can convey through an eloquent and efficient resume and cover letter that you are a stellar communicator, you probably could make up some for your lack of hard experience. Pair that with a few volunteer testing gigs, and you should be in very good shape to apply for those QA jobs.

I do stand by my recommendation to apply to jobs in QA. But similarly to what I talked about in the column on finding internships, it may require some digging to find true entry-level jobs, as companies donít need to advertise them wildly. Pay attention to the job or employment sections of web sites for companies in your area in addition to keeping an eye on the industry job boards.

Good luck.

[Jill Duffy is editor-in-chief of GameCareerGuide.com and senior contributing editor of Game Developer magazine. If you have a question about working in game development that you would like to see answered in this biweekly column, email it to [email protected] Letters may be edited for space and clarity.]


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